Early last year, Gun Runner was on everybody’s Derby list, a flashy chestnut colt with high cruising speed in the hands of a Hall of Fame trainer, Steve Asmussen. After running a strong third to Nyquist on Derby Day, Gun Runner remained in the 3-year-old picture, but only in the background.
He skipped the Preakness and Belmont, and after routing a subpar field in the Matt Winn at Churchill Downs, he lost his next four races — the Haskell (fifth), Travers (third), Pennsylvania Derby (second) and Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (second). He ended the year by beating older horses in Churchill’s Clark Handicap, but that didn’t change his reputation: pretty good, not great.
Yet unlike most 3-year-olds who had long campaigns, Gun Runner improved dramatically at 4. He’s 4-for-5 in 2017, with a victory margin of a combined 28 lengths. He’s surpassed former world-beater Arrogate to become the country’s top-ranked horse, and Gun Runner is the 9-5 favorite for Saturday’s $6-million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar.
“We went to New Orleans for the winter, and his works early this year indicated we were dealing with a lot more horse than we were the year before, just stronger and faster,” Asmussen said. “His recovery from everything was a little quicker, and I feel like since February he’s trained like a machine. We’re very happy about who he’s developed into.”
Even though Gun Runner has been unchallenged since finishing second to Arrogate on March 25 in the Dubai World Cup, there are questions. He’s 0-for-2 against Arrogate, whom he’ll face Saturday, and 0-for-3 at the Classic distance of 1 1⁄4 miles. Asmussen expressed confidence that 10 furlongs isn’t beyond his superstar’s reach.
“Just the way he’s trained and run all year,” he said. “What has happened since the World Cup is surprising to a lot of people. He is at a very high level, and even though he’s never run at Del Mar, he’s handled quite a few racetracks. We’re just trying to get to the Classic in the best shape possible and prove where Gun Runner is at.”
Even if he outruns Arrogate, the 2-1 second choice, Gun Runner will have to beat three of his stablemates from Bob Baffert’s barn — multiple-stakes winners West Coast (6-1), Collected (6-1) and Mubtaahij (12-1).
“It just happens the way that the chips fall sometimes,” Baffert said. “I’ve never had so many older horses before.” Neither has anybody else. The record for entries by a trainer in the Classic is three, by Bill Mott (2012) and the late Bobby Frankel (1993). None of their horses won.
Baffert swept the last three Classics with Bayern, Triple Crown hero American Pharoah and Arrogate. To protect his unprecedented streak, Baffert could decide to sacrifice one of his horses to burn out Gun Runner. Does it worry Asmussen that Baffert might try to gang up on him with tag-team tactics?
“It does, it really does,” he said. “Hopefully, they’re all out there trying to win.”